The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

Briar-Rose (or Sleeping Beauty)

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2018]

A long time ago there were a King and Queen who said every day, “Ah, if only we had a child!” but they never had one. But it happened that once when the Queen was bathing, a frog crept out of the water on to the land, and said to her, “Your wish shall be fulfilled; before a year has gone by you shall have a daughter.” What the frog had said came true, and the Queen had a little girl who was so pretty that the King could not contain himself for joy, and ordered a great feast.

The fairy tale begins with a royal couple that has long remained barren. Finally, the frog, as a creature of the water, promised a child. This indicates that the queen was not sitting in a standard bathtub but was bathing in a natural body of water, perhaps even with a ritualistic background. Because the water is closely connected with what we call life. Our body is mostly water, we grow up in a bubble of amniotic fluid and the earthly life itself was created in the water. In the past, people were very aware of this connection with water and there were many rituals such as Christian baptism. Even today, the ritual bath for devout Hindus in sacred rivers or lakes plays an important role in India. Accordingly, one was grateful when the beings of nature had answered the wishes of the people, which was always a good reason to celebrate.

He invited not only his kindred, friends and acquaintance, but also the Wise Women, in order that they might be kind and well-disposed towards the child. There were thirteen of them in his kingdom, but, as he had only twelve golden plates for them to eat out of, one of them had to be left at home.

The feast was held with all manner of splendour, and when it came to an end the Wise Women bestowed their magic gifts upon the baby: one gave virtue, another beauty, a third riches, and so on with everything in the world that one can wish for. When eleven of them had made their promises, suddenly the thirteenth came in. She wished to avenge herself for not having been invited, and without greeting, or even looking at any one, she cried with a loud voice, “The King’s daughter shall in her fifteenth year prick herself with a spindle, and fall down dead.” And, without saying a word more, she turned round and left the room.

They were all shocked; but the twelfth, whose good wish still remained unspoken, came forward, and as she could not undo the evil sentence, but only soften it, she said, “It shall not be death, but a deep sleep of a hundred years, into which the princess shall fall.”

Even today, it is still common to bless the birth of a child with good wishes. We should be glad that our rational science has not completely suppressed such traditions. The influence of good or bad wishes on another person actually belongs there to superstition because it is scientifically not provable. But in former times people still felt dependent on nature and her spirits and even invited the fairies to the great festival, which could also be called fate goddesses. Here we meet again the famous game of the numbers 12 and 13. That the king has only 12 golden plates and cannot invite the 13th fairy, has certainly a symbolic meaning. Most likely is the role of the thirteenth Moon-month in the solar year, which appears only irregularly every two to three years. So here might stand the golden plates for the twelve months of the solar year. That would mean that the king wishes for his daughter only reliable things, such as virtue, beauty and wealth. He prefers to keep away anything random, unpredictable, unfortunate or irrational from his child and does not invite this 13th fairy. This already suggests the essence of what our king symbolically stands for in this fairy tale. But the accidental and unhappy cannot be eliminated from life, even if we would like to.

Therefore the 13th fairy comes to the celebration of the birth and takes revenge for her disregard with the curse that the king’s daughter should fall dead at fifteen years. The twelfth fairy uses her blessing and turns that death into a hundred-year sleep. Here we probably meet the core issue of the story, namely the big question of what life and death actually mean.

What seems to us to be quite clear at first sight is, on a deeper level, a wide field for reflection and can lead to many higher cognitions. What is the difference between death and deep sleep, when you think of rebirth? And what is the difference between life and dreams when you think of the great awakening? Already in the old Mahabharata [MHB 12.203] is spoken of these three natural states of consciousness, namely dreamlike waking, dreamlike sleeping and dreamless sleeping. The dreamless waking would then be the great awakening or self-knowledge, the greatest that one can achieve in life. But the way to reach it is not so easy:

The King, who would fain keep his dear child from the misfortune, gave orders that every spindle in the whole kingdom should be burnt. Meanwhile the gifts of the Wise Women were plenteously fulfilled on the young girl, for she was so beautiful, modest, good-natured, and wise, that every one who saw her was bound to love her.

If we consider the king here as rational thinking or intellect, then this would be a typical reaction. Does this sound familiar to us? Let’s just think of book burning, machine breakers or energy-saving lamps! Because the intellect is primarily focused on the external, he tends to oppose the effects rather than the causes. Our modern science also suffers from this curse of the rational intellect. We are looking for a solution to environmental pollution and climate catastrophe by developing many new machines and inventions that sell well. Only few people think about the root causes such as selfishness, greed and waste. Of course, this way you cannot do big business.

It happened that on the very day when she was fifteen years old, the King and Queen were not at home, and the maiden was left in the palace quite alone. So she went round into all sorts of places, looked into rooms and bed-chambers just as she liked, and at last came to an old tower. She climbed up the narrow winding-staircase, and reached a little door. A rusty key was in the lock, and when she turned it the door sprang open, and there in a little room sat an old woman with a spindle, busily spinning her flax.

“Good day, old dame,” said the King’s daughter; “what are you doing there?” - “I am spinning,” said the old woman, and nodded her head. “What sort of thing is that, that rattles round so merrily?” said the girl, and she took the spindle and wanted to spin too. But scarcely had she touched the spindle when the magic decree was fulfilled, and she pricked her finger with it. And, in the very moment when she felt the prick, she fell down upon the bed that stood there, and lay in a deep sleep.

Parents cannot protect their children forever. They pass on their inheritance, and then comes the time for each person to go their own way. And so the young soul began to explore everything around her curiously. Finally she came to the old tower, which is certainly an important symbol here. A winding staircase leads on this tower, that is, you rise in circles ever higher and away from the ground. Upstairs, the soul finds a tight little room where an old woman is spinning the fate. Already from Germanic mythology we know the Norns, who spin the threads of fate at the bottom of the Tree of Life. This symbolism is very old. And of course the small little room in the tower reminds us of our upper storey. And the inheritance from her parents is not only the virtues, but also the curse of the intellect, that the soul, as soon as she enters this room full of thoughts, reaches for her own destiny and wants to spin it by herself, to determine her own fate. Then she freezes quickly and falls into a strange sleep, which of course does not always have to be as deep as in our fairy tale. The rusty key on the small door is certainly no accidence, because this little door, where the living could come into our mind, is rarely used. Usually it stays locked up and everything else comes through the windows of the senses into our tower of the body, which we so vehemently defend with the ego. And if, nevertheless, something alive comes in, then we make sure that it freezes quickly.

This solidification in our upper storey is nothing new. Even Goethe complained in [Faust 1]:

Ah, me! This dungeon still I see.
This drear, accursed masonry,
Where even the welcome daylight strains
But dusky through the painted panes.
Hemmed in by many a toppling heap
Of books worm-eaten, gray with dust,
Which to the vaulted ceiling creep,
Against the smoky paper thrust, -
With glasses, boxes round me stacked
And instruments together hurled,
Ancestral lumber, stuffed and packed, -
Such is my world: and what a world!

And do I ask, wherefore my heart
Falters, oppressed with unknown needs?
Why some inexplicable smart
All movement of my life impedes?
Alas! In living Nature’s stead,
Where God his human creature set,
In smoke and mould the fleshless dead
And bones of beasts surround me yet!

And this sleep extended over the whole palace; the King and Queen who had just come home, and had entered the great hall, began to go to sleep, and the whole of the court with them. The horses, too, went to sleep in the stable, the dogs in the yard, the pigeons upon the roof, the flies on the wall; even the fire that was flaming on the hearth became quiet and slept, the roast meat left off frizzling, and the cook, who was just going to pull the hair of the scullery boy, because he had forgotten something, let him go, and went to sleep. And the wind fell, and on the trees before the castle not a leaf moved again. But round about the castle there began to grow a hedge of thorns, which every year became higher, and at last grew close up round the castle and all over it, so that there was nothing of it to be seen, not even the flag upon the roof.

That’s really the case, this rational solidification of our thinking stains the whole world and spreads. Soon we are surrounded only by dead or paralyzed things. And the higher we get in this tower and leave the ground, the more lifeless this world becomes. After all, plants, animals, and even humans are just dead numbers that you can count and make a profit with. Someone may say, “Such nonsense, our modern world is not dead! Humanity has never developed as fast as it does today.” Yes, but one would have to think about the question of what life really means. What really makes life alive? All the hectic back and forth is certainly not an essential feature of life. Then every comet of stone and ice would be more alive than we, because it races through space much faster than we do on our highways. - Is not life above all a matter of the mind? How open are we to spiritual things these days? How flexible is our mind? How close do we still feel connected to the big picture? Can we still feel the life, even in the water, in the fire and in the wind? Or are we already surrounded by a growing thorn hedge and resist any attempt to be conquered by a higher mind?

But the story of the beautiful sleeping “Briar-Rose,” for so the princess was named, went about the country, so that from time to time kings’ sons came and tried to get through the thorny hedge into the castle. But they found it impossible, for the thorns held fast together, as if they had hands, and the youths were caught in them, could not get loose again, and died a miserable death.

After long, long years a King’s son came again to that country, and heard an old man talking about the thorn-hedge, and that a castle was said to stand behind it in which a wonderfully beautiful princess, named Briar-Rose, had been asleep for a hundred years; and that the King and Queen and the whole court were asleep likewise. He had heard, too, from his grandfather, that many kings’ sons had already come, and had tried to get through the thorny hedge, but they had remained sticking fast in it, and had died a pitiful death. Then the youth said, “I am not afraid, I will go and see the beautiful Briar-Rose.” The good old man might dissuade him as he would, he did not listen to his words.

The name Briar-Rose is evidently the famous symbol that the beautiful roses are always associated with thorns that defend themselves painfully. Here, of course, we again think of our pure soul as the epitome of beauty and love that awakens and blossoms like a beautiful rose under the spring sun. But until then, of course, we are defending ourselves against the higher mind, against the pure reason, which tries again and again to win us over. But until the time is not ripe for it, of course, it fails on our walls and fades in the thick thorny scrub.

In the Song of Solomon of the Bible we read the following alternating song in a similarly symbolic way: “Like a rose among the thorns, so is my friend among the daughters. Like an apple tree among the wild trees, so is my friend among the sons. I sit under the shadow that I desire, and his fruit is sweet in my throat. ... - I swear to you, daughters of Jerusalem, to the deer or to the hinds in the field, that you do not wake up my friend nor excite her until she likes it herself. [Bible, Song of Solomon 2]”

But by this time the hundred years had just passed, and the day had come when Briar-Rose was to awake again. When the King’s son came near to the thorn-hedge, it was nothing but large and beautiful flowers, which parted from each other of their own accord, and let him pass unhurt, then they closed again behind him like a hedge. In the castle-yard he saw the horses and the spotted hounds lying asleep; on the roof sat the pigeons with their heads under their wings. And when he entered the house, the flies were asleep upon the wall, the cook in the kitchen was still holding out his hand to seize the boy, and the maid was sitting by the black hen which she was going to pluck. He went on farther, and in the great hall he saw the whole of the court lying asleep, and up by the throne lay the King and Queen. Then he went on still farther, and all was so quiet that a breath could be heard, and at last he came to the tower, and opened the door into the little room where Briar-Rose was sleeping. There she lay, so beautiful that he could not turn his eyes away; and he stooped down and gave her a kiss. But as soon as he kissed her, Briar-Rose opened her eyes and awoke, and looked at him quite sweetly.

Then they went down together, and the King awoke, and the Queen, and the whole court, and looked at each other in great astonishment. And the horses in the court-yard stood up and shook themselves; the hounds jumped up and wagged their tails; the pigeons upon the roof pulled out their heads from under their wings, looked round, and flew into the open country; the flies on the wall crept again; the fire in the kitchen burned up and flickered and cooked the meat; the joint began to turn and frizzle again, and the cook gave the boy such a box on the ear that he screamed, and the maid plucked the fowl ready for the spit.

And then the marriage of the King’s son with Briar-Rose was celebrated with all splendour, and they lived contented to the end of their days.

There is probably only one thing the ego cannot force in this world and that is the deliverance from that curse to force everything. But when the time is right, the thorn-hedge opens as if by itself and transforms into a sea of flowers. When the true spirit kisses us awake, we awaken and everything around us to the true life, like the frozen winter nature under the spring sun. That may be the great awakening from the dreamy sleep in our narrow mind, the great marriage of the soul with the Holy Spirit. And this is not the end of life after the symbolic hundred years, but the fulfilment of life when we are freed from the narrow defensive tower of our ego and united with eternal life itself.

Therefore, our mind should never freeze, especially not in childhood. The irrational, the unpredictable and even the misfortune demand their natural place in life. For this reason, fairy tales are an important thing, especially for children. We also say very clearly: "Children need fairy tales!"

Faithful John - (topic: overcoming opposites through reason)
The Wonderful Musician - (topic: The great harmony)
The White Snake - (topic: The ring of true love and connectedness)
The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs - (topic: soul-desire-ego)
The Girl Without Hands - (topic: The path of suffering to salvation)
Briar-Rose or Sleeping Beauty (topic: The rigor mortis of nature)
Our Lady’s Child - (topic: The divine sense of nature)
The Frog-King, or Iron Henry - (topic: spirit-nature)
Sweet Porridge - (topic: poverty and abundance)
Cat and Mouse in Partnership - (topic: reason-ego)
The Fisherman and his Wife - (topic: ego madness)
... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /